Spheres of Knowing the w/hole child

Principles for knowing

The current educational climate provides an environment which privileges cognitive knowledge over any other form of knowing, the assessment of which is largely documented through written form either by children or by adults on behalf of children[1]. Teachers are encouraged to look for the holes in each child’s knowledge, as opposed to the whole of their being and knowing, and to measure this using language as opposed to any other form of sense-expression which might speak to a young child’s expertise.


This reductive approach to delivering and measuring education, where legislative responsibilities to plug the ‘holes’ in a child are in direct conflict with moral responsibilities to sustain the whole child, is nevertheless transformed by many excellent teachers who take a children’s rights standpoint. Their approaches to teaching, observations, documentation and assessment are often (re)designed to capture children’s ways of being and knowing, and to nurture their greatest potential in ways that are relational, co-constructed, generative and fulfilling. It is borne out of a respect for, and desire to harness, children’s agency – their capacities for independence (or the difficult processes towards this), choice-making, curiosity, exploration, intelligence, creativity, sensory and tacit knowledge, meaning-making, theorising, and building complex relations to (and with) materials, people and spaces.


More than this is a recognition of children’s openness to ‘the ‘Other’ that disrupts discourse from within’ (MacLure, 2006, p732), expressed not within a standardised framework but through the new-materialistic thinking that tries to resist neat, transparent, simplified explanations and encourage the opening-up of complexity (MacLure, 2006), and possibility thinking which may not even be consciously motivated (Craft, 2002, p91).


There is much for myself as an aspiring anthropological researcher to learn from this, the most important being the need for methodologies to be based on humanitarian principles for equity, democracy, justice, connectivity, multi-perspectives and shared understandings. My research aims to underpin honestly the voices, identities and knowing of children who are competent yet vulnerable (Mukherji and Albon, 2018). I travel towards a communitarian alternative where ‘power is relational, characterized by mutuality rather than sovereignty’ (Denzin and Lincoln, 2013, p153). I actively seek ways to ground research in a purpose that honours and benefits the participants, revealing something about their story which is generative and allows new ideas to be imagined, rather than re-pathologising their histories or rendering us voyeurs (Ivinson and Renold, 2016).


This is a space that is often messy, seeks to problematize the known and unknown, and sacrifices closure and certainty for unmeasurable, changeable, sense-based ways of knowing and being (Finlay, 2002).


Inappropriate methodologies and not-knowing

If one of the purposes for research is to ascertain the most reliable, valid truth about the situation in question, one might argue for a positivist approach using quantitative methods alone. Such epistemological methodologies assume a dualism of direct cause and effect that can be pinned down and measured beyond doubt, revealing the ‘truth’ of the matter (Crotty, 1998). However, in early years studies, to ignore the multiple forces, interactions, relations and influences on a child’s life in pursuit of a one-size-fits-all solution that describes what and how a child should be, know and behave, would seem inappropriate and unethical.


Yet early education policy and assessment frameworks in England are guided by a positivist, evidence-based epistemology[2]. As a result, teacher training and practice is largely driven by assessment targets, limiting the potential to recognise children’s uniqueness as learners or teachers’ professional judgement and intuition in supporting each child’s appropriate learning journey.


The negative consequences of using inappropriate methodologies with young children can be witnessed in the recent attempts to introduce a standardised Baseline Assessment for four year olds[3]. The validity and ethics of this approach have been widely challenged for a number of reasons:


  • Literacy and numeracy tasks have been selected for ease of correlation across large datasets, despite respected research showing that spoken language, play, playfulness and self-regulation are better predictors of development, and that socioeconomic background is a stronger influence on progress than any difference in performance between schools (Bradbury et al., 2018).


  • The timing of the test correlates with the one of the most stressful, unsettled periods in a four year old’s life, when they are starting school and away from the familiarity of everything that makes them feel secure in their knowing and being.


  • It distorts the learning environment towards accountability rather than the joy of the learning experience, encouraging educators into false beliefs about ‘fixed ability’, or labelling ability as ‘lacking’ in some way and skewing their view of a child’s potential (ibid).


  • The test appears biased towards children with reading and English language skills or the cognitive skills to understand the tasks. In fact, the pilot study showed scores could be manipulated to give the appearance of more progress being shown.


Use of inappropriate methodologies and methods such as in this example can lead to researcher bias, skewed data, damage to professionalism, unethical practices and a lack of inclusivity (Moss et al., 2016).


Inclusive Ways of Knowing

Since the holistic nature of childhood is neither predictable nor generalisable, more appropriate ways of knowing include social constructivist or interpretivist epistemologies, or critical theories that make sense of the meanings ascribed to children’s actions within a socio-cultural framework[4], and recognise that ‘our interpretations of the world influence our behaviour in it’ (Hughes, 2010, p41).


Inclusive methodologies, such as ethnography, anthropology or play-based, participatory action research that releases children’s voices, are well placed to achieve more authentic representation. Inclusivity means employing appropriate methods to gather children’s mutimodal stories such as case studies, reflective journaling, story-building, hanging-out (Lahman, 2008) or maker-focussed activities, such as drawing, crafts, modelling, clay-play or photography. Exploring the many ‘other’ languages children use to convey meaning is important because children’s ideas are ‘formed and transformed when expressed through different media’ (Akermann, 2001, p4) and such methods help us understand the processes of children’s knowing, not just the products.


This is not to say that quantitative methods have no place in this field, simply that they don’t tell the whole story. Indeed, capturing bio-data such as temperature, heart rate variability or sympathetic nervous system arousal can be enormously useful to tell part of the story of how a child knows and lives through a particular experience. A key ethical issue is how such data can be studied using less-invasive tools such as wearable wristbands or EEG caps, enabling researchers to ‘engage with the body in a more distributed and unconscious way… whole still mobilizing embodied forces’ (de Freitas, 2018, p295).


In fact, Barad (2007) and Lenz-Taguchi (2011) explore knowing as a relational concept that acknowledges subjectivity and celebrates the inter-dependence of the natural and social sciences. Schore (2017) ascertains that a baby’s entire being is focussed on creating moments of ontogenetic relationship as they co-respond with their carer through intense social interactions. This complex web of intra-re-actions between agents, environment and materials, and the biological, genetic, physiological, spiritual, cultural and creative forces this triggers, consciously and sub-consciously, intentionally and unintentionally, in-control and out-of-control, cannot be easily defined through language alone.


My own research intends to explore a mixed-methods / triangulation approach discovering as much through sensation as sentence, to add rigour, breadth, complexity and richness towards opening up deeper understandings. I would call this a methodology of ‘living knowing’.


Knowing by immersion

As adult researchers, whether observing and learning about life through an ethnographic frame or learning with and from life by immersing ourselves in the anthropological experience (Ingold, 2013), we are embracing a democratic act of co-production in recognising the ongoing learning taking place in both adult and child.


In order to holistically explain knowing, Miller explains (Macdonald, 2001), the ethnographer must:

  • be present

  • evaluate what people do, not what they say they do

  • commit to the long term so participants can carry on as normal

  • consider the bigger picture of people’s lives and forces that can be sensed and known in a deeper way, even if not the whole picture.


This way the researcher can begin to portray how we are ‘constituted by each other as diverse human beings with varying ages, spaces, locations and biophysical-cultural characteristics.’ (Rautio, 2013, p402).


In MMU’s ODD project (UKRI, 2018), the artist-anthropologist takes this further and immerses herself in the role of a young child for a more immediate understanding of their experience. Dressed in school uniform, she forgoes the adult privileges of jumping queues, sitting on chairs or eating lunch in the staff room. She joins in everything with the children being studied. But how can she suspend her years of experience, which enable access to understandings the children cannot possibly yet know? Could she ever know as a child knows?


It surely cannot be possible, since a young child fills gaps in their understanding using imagination and imagery in their minds to help make sense of what they do not yet understand (Brėdikytė, 2011). So, whilst attempting to experience a child’s perspective by taking on the least-adult role (Mandell, 1988), there must be a level of interpretation, dialogue and tacit awareness that biases the researcher by nature of them being more experienced - having more knowing - than a child.


For me this raises two questions.


  • How ethical is anthropology that serves to equalise an experience between subjects with such huge diversity between them? Is acknowledging this differentiation enough?

  •  Are there qualities such as trust, or dispositions or specific types of knowing, that children sense in adults and are more conducive to eliciting a shared understanding? For instance, whilst hanging out, wallowing and immersing ones-self in the daily fragments that make up a child’s environment (Bruce, 2005), by what criteria might a child give us the ‘glad eye’ inviting us to co-operate, play, co-construct and explore new things together?


One approach to embrace the complexity of this relationship might be Finlay’s (2002) endorsement of ‘collaborative reflexivity’. As well as promoting rich insight and empowerment for participants, this approach offers ‘the opportunity to hear, and take into account, multiple voices and conflicting positions’ revealing ‘essentially unequal relationships’ (p.220).


Knowing through reflexivity

In their having been, being and becoming, children research and create theories that explain how and why the world works – a search for meaning that influences the development of their identities (Akermann, 2001). An approach such as Rinaldi’s (2001) pedagogy of listening challenges the researcher’s positionality by asking us to pay attention to how we select and share things in ways which give meaning and value to the perspectives, experiences and knowledge of others. This is a key ethical challenge for all early years researchers whose choice of what to leave in and what to take out of their observation and analysis – of choosing what details matter (Jones et al., 2010, p485) - inevitably results in a subjective framing of their evaluation – or valuing – of children’s knowing.


Our responsibility as researchers, therefore, is surely to develop a reflexive practise with a depth of self-awareness and honesty that recognises the complex entanglements between the subjects’ and researcher’s social, political and cultural influences (Denzin and Lincoln, 2013) whilst attempting to preclude epistemic or axiological privilege in the process. As Barry et al. (1999) argues, ‘there are multiple voices in this area of [ ] research.… Using reflexivity to uncover the different agendas of each team member helps us avoid biasing the data toward one voice’ (p41).


As a researcher, we need to discover how to tune in and get to know the affects of the environment we’re working within in order to try and make sense of it for both researchers and subjects. Finlay (2002) helps us to do this using five different approaches to reflexivity:


  • Introspection

  • Inter subjective reflection

  • Mutual collaboration

  • Social critique

  • Discursive deconstruction.


As a critical realist, my desire to foreground children’s agency can sometimes urge me to unwittingly assign meaning where none exists (or none that can be easily understood). Finlay’s map helps this navigation through the ‘swamp’ towards a new materialist standpoint that embraces fuzziness and complexity.

Knowing by representing / seeing differently

Proust (1982) endorses this core principle; ‘The only true voyage of discovery… would be not to visit strange lands but to possess other eyes, to behold the universe through the eyes of another, of a hundred others, to behold the hundred universes that each of them beholds, that each of them is.


The role of the researcher in making the familiar strange is examined by Mannay (2010) whilst recognising the dichotomy of being either the ‘insider’ trying to suspend preconceptions that emerge from over-familiarity, or the ‘outsider’ struggling to understand deeply through lack of relationship with the subject or field.


Ingold similarly suggests there is a learning curve for anthropologists which involves ‘shaking off’ preconceptions that shape their knowing before it is known. Quite how to go about this is not so clear, although he hints that the path of discovery is found by ‘feeling forward rather than casting our eyes rearwards, in anticipation rather than retrospection’ (Ingold, 2013, p2).


Knowing how to articulate multiple perspectives so that others can be part of the conversation and influence how it impacts on society, policy and practice, is a challenge that needs to be addressed. Foucault, advocates cross-disciplinary approaches to discourse analysis in order to see complex issues clearly and reveal the dominant ways of seeing the world (Mukherji and Albon, 2018).


Ingold goes so far as to promote research that is anti-disciplinary, rather than inter-disciplinary, i.e. going beyond the idea of crossing delineated boundaries into a realm of intertwined  knowing as if it were ‘like a rope, wound from corresponding strands or lines of interest’ in a bid to ‘celebrate the openness of knowing from the inside’ (Ingold, 2013, p12).


Being open to new perspectives means not being limited by language, but having what Ingold refers to as ‘a relationship with the world that I shall henceforth call correspondence’ (Ingold, 2013, p7). This co-respond-ing may take different, non-verbal forms including photographic or video based documentation, movement of the body or parts of the body through gesture and physical inclination, sensory exchange through touch or feeling, shared musical constructions such as improvised singing or listening to music (which, in itself, is a multimodal experience connecting p minds and bodies), crafting, sculpting or other sensory forms of making and knowing.


In co-respond-ing through these tools, we acknowledge that we as humans are already ‘of’ the world (Barad, 2007), engaged in a live act of research where observation and practice are inter-dependent and we are simultaneously inside and outside the field of inquiry (Ingold, 2013). This potentially collapses any positivist epistemic privilege leading to a more equitable, co-produced, co-dependent relationship between subjects and objects.

Knowing through aesthetics

Borrowing from both aesthetic and experiential methods as a bricoleur might (Denzin and Lincoln, 2013), it is this sensation of generative, entangled, inter-dependent ways of knowing that I have introduced in my Spheres of Knowing sculpture. The entanglement of strands reflects the difficulty of researching ways of knowing as distinct from ways of being, especially for young children whose ways of growing, sensing, relating, investigating, theorising, loving, thinking and communicating are simultaneously based on who they are in the world and how they know about things (Mukherji and Albon, 2018). The separation of the two seems instrumental at best and a false representation of the world at worst.


As represented by the myriad of windows through which to peek, Barad’s (2007) onto-epistemological thinking provides a more respectful crystal through which to view multiple perspectives of the whole child depending on the position from which we look (Richardson and Adams St Pierre, 2005) and encapsulates a potential of what could be / be known.


MacLure (2006, p737) perfectly illustrates this through Lugli’s (1986, p123) idea of wonder as a ‘sort of suspension of the mind between ignorance and enlightenment that marks the end of unknowing and the beginning of knowing’. Each junction of strands intersecting with each other represents the entangled, non-linear, strange and potentially infinite relationships between different ways of knowing (of both child-as-researcher and adult-as-researcher), many without beginning or end, evolving from untold previous generations through our genetic and cultural code, and constantly mutating along different future trajectories and ‘lines of flight’ (Deleuze and Guattari, 1987, in (Rautio, 2013, p398) depending on the encounter.


Aesthetically, the Sphere of Knowing has a beauty in its form and content, especially when seeing light refracting, reflecting and radiating through it, whilst spinning round. The projection of dancing patterns on the surrounding surfaces draws our attention to qualities that might resonate or conflict with our own view of the world, illuminating facets, textures, movements, shapes, places and ideas within both the object and ourselves – a force that both reflects and troubles the familiar (Trafi-Prats, 2019). The sphere as a work of art, therefore, may ‘overcome the confines of language, open up experience and make the familiar strange’ (Mannay, 2010, p95) at the same time as offering inspiration, hope and the possibility of what might be.


The sculpture is somewhat limited by its fixed form (representing only a moment of knowing in time and space), its spherical shape (representing a desire to examine whole-ness amongst the fragments of hole-ness), and its passivity (representing the one-way, preconceived, often autocratic window through which we observe and analyse children).


Given time, resources, skill set and imagination, I would ideally like to have created an interactive, live, 4D mass of atoms, ions, particles, electrical currents and organisms that influence relational responses and change in response to every sensation with the matter around it. A bit like a plasma globe with a unique brain and body and without the boundary of glass surrounding it. Much like a child, in fact, with her spiritual, creative, imaginative and more-than-human forces being her fourth dimension.


The challenge from a creative perspective is to discover whether a researcher can immerse themselves in the processes of learning through the imagination, and everything that entails, without egotistically influencing, facilitating or passing on ready-made knowledge to the subject. Can knowing truly be co-constructed in a ‘shared pursuit of human understanding’ (Ingold, 2013, p13) that enables subject and researcher to express their anti-disciplinary perspectives on the world in their different, strange languages and still be heard or understood by each other?


Bibliography of Knowing

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[1] The structure and content of the curriculum, and the design of teacher training, is driven by an objective to provide a ‘broad and balanced’ curriculum (H.M.Government, 2002, 78i) that enables children to learn heterogeneous knowledge and skills according to their age and stage of development. However, knowledge and skills acquisition are taught and measured through homogeneous frameworks designed to identify gaps in learning that need to be filled.

[2] England’s Children’s Act 2004 was heavily influenced by the US’s No Child Left Behind Act 2001 which was developed by the National Research Council according to a scientifically based research movement (Denzin and Lincoln, 2013).

[3] Designed to measure schools’ performance in learning attainment (assuming this is commensurate with quality of learning), the Baseline test involves a child completing specific literacy and numeracy tasks for 20 minutes within the first six weeks of school, answering questions in English (H.M.Government, 2018).

[4] Feminist standpoint theory, for instance, explores ideas of empowerment and emancipation within families and offers a more respectful representation of children as complex beings of integrity and particularity, able to transform and be transformed in relation to their carers (Benton and Craib, 2011). Simultaneously, it offers a modern viewpoint on early education professionals, of whom 97% are women, still largely exploited by the capitalist power of the independent early education sector, which accounts for 88% of the market (OECD, 2012). This polarised tug-of-war between structure and agency, one-dimensionality and multiplicity, has implications for how we view and value knowing, and reflects the challenges and complexities that authentic research must attend to in this arena.